On child welfare

Jezebel has been posting stories over the past several weeks from parents of children that have been involved in the child welfare system. They’ve been both interesting and heartbreaking, while providing narratives to situations most are only vaguely aware of. I’ve noticed in the comments that there are disagreements where, generally-speaking, some feel that the stories told do not mitigate what they see as the fact that children are placed in danger. Others highlight the odious effects of state involvement in underprivileged populations. Both sides make valid points.

It’s really important to note that the posts thus far are incredibly one-sided. In none of them are the various child welfare entities going to offer their side of the story even if asked, as that is highly confidential. Neither will you hear from children, though the comments section contains some of their stories and responses.

I’ve been aware of a couple local stories where I’ve personally known about a lot more beneath the surface, where if the public knew they’d probably have a different opinion than solely having read a sensationalized account in the local media. But lacking that confidential context, the public, when they are aware of it, are free to excoriate the system for continuing to fuck up. In instances such as the ones referenced in Jezebel, I can’t help but find myself rhetorically asking “what the fuck? Should we as a society just turn a blind eye and not err on the side of caution if there’s strong evidence of child endangerment?”

On the other hand, I cannot deny that the following is abundantly true:

But recent reporting has captured the opposite reality – that child welfare investigations and removals are a constant, terrifying presence in the lives of poor parents. Citywide, one in five children comes to the attention of the child welfare system. The majority of investigations are concentrated in just eight neighborhoods. Most allegations are not abuse but neglect, often driven by the stressors of poverty, not the character of the parent. And the negative press may have heightened disparate treatment of poor families; in the first quarter of 2017, after the coverage of Zymere Perkins’ death, requests for removals by the agency were up significantly over the same time last year.

I guess what I’m saying is it’s important to consider what’s missing from the stories. Unless you are directly affected, or work in the bowels of the system, it’s hard to get a grasp of the magnitude of what’s faced. But one is able to get a tenuous grasp if they choose to look.


Wisconsin, my home state, publishes certain statistics regarding child welfare. Other states do as well, though it varies in terms of what information types are accessible and how it is collected and presented. If Wisconsin’s website is any indication, most aren’t very user user-friendly. But before digging into some of those statistics, I’m going to sketch a brief outline of how a family becomes involved in child welfare.

A person believes an incident or child abuse or neglect has taken place. They call the appropriate hotline in their area. A decision is made to investigate (Screen In), or to file the information away and not investigate (Screen Out). A majority of calls are Screened Out. This usually happens due to a dearth of information. For example, if you see a parent physically abusing a child in a parking lot and call it in and have only that information, it’s likely to be screened out.

Calls that are Screened In are investigated. For this, Social Workers are sent out in a time-frame that is determined by the possible danger the kids are judged to be in. This could happen immediately or over the course of a month. Most investigations will yield a result of unsubstantiated. Typically, this is due to lack of evidence, or the allegations not turning out to rise to the level of actual abuse and neglect. These cases are either closed or kept open while services are given with the children remaining in the home. Though it’s obvious, it should be pointed out that though an allegation may not be substantiated, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. The same goes for uninvestigated Screen Outs.

The state of Wisconsin received 52,100 allegations of child abuse or neglect in the first eight months of 2017. About 35% were Screened In and investigated [1]. The rest were not. Milwaukee County accounted for about 20% of all calls, and were investigated more than the statewide average, around 45% of the time.

In any given month, around 7000-8000 children are in out of home care. Roughly around 400 children enter care, and 300 leave care in the same time span. Children are placed with relatives, family friends, foster homes, or at higher level of care facilities such as group homes, or residential care centers. Efforts are extended, especially when a child enters care, to place with relatives. Very anecdotally, about half of all cases involve relatives willing to help out. Unfortunately, most of these relatives have at least some history of involvement in child welfare in many different contexts. If one of the contexts is a substantiation for abuse or neglect, they will be ruled out as a viable option [2].

I noted above that most allegations are unsubstantiated, but prior to looking into this more in depth, it was an anecdotal opinion based on my work. In short, I’ve read hundreds of reports and most are unsubstantiated. This is borne out by data, though perhaps not as much as I had thought. From 2004-2015 the substantiation rate has been consistently lowering from a high in 2004 of 20.3% to 12.0% in 2015. Reasons are not given or hypothesized for the drop and it can’t be said that it is due to a lowering in the amount of CPS reports (the combination of Screen Ins and Screen Outs).

The year 2015 was the most recent year I found a complete report for, and the following data is culled from it. For that year, a majority of the CPS reports were for neglect (similar to NYC, as described in the Jezebel post), as can be seen below:

However, neglect allegations weren’t as likely to be substantiated as allegations for sexual abuse. This came as a surprise to me due to preconceived notions, largely due to reading so many horrifying sexual abuse allegations that were unable to be verified for various reasons. Often, this was in the form of a child recanting their prior allegation.

The report also breaks down the victims by race. Unsurprisingly to anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the systemic race-based hurdles placed in front black families, they are disproportionately affected:

I could keep going, as there is a wealth of other information on topics like child fatalities, the breakdown of relations to abusers, caregiver maltreatment, placement outcomes and stability, etc. But I think the above suffices to paint a general picture of what occurs in a standard calendar year. The same graphs and tables in previous annual reports are relatively consistent in terms of trends.

There are no statistics about income level, but anecdotally, just about all families, at least from Milwaukee County and probably the rural parts of the state, are economically disadvantaged. This should not be interpreted as concrete evidence that poorer families are definitively predisposed to child abuse and neglect. It’s more accurate to say that families are, through no fault of their own, stuck in generational cycles of poverty and its associated risk factors, such as substance abuse and depression. The research is pretty clear.

Here I’d like to step back and note how it feels almost inhuman to reduce families and children to data points presented in a bar graph or pie chart. These are actual human beings experiencing many forms of trauma. Every situation is different, though many themes may be similar. The sheer volume may not surprise everyone, but it should. I’m pessimistic as fuck and have long had somewhat of a grasp on child welfare in my state and still I’m pretty shocked – 52,100 allegations over seven months is quite a lot.


Social services workers are almost always overworked, underpaid, and very unappreciated. There are no TV shows or movies celebrating what they do. If they’re ever portrayed it’s usually as exhausted and mildly incompetent, with the latter usually being a direct consequence of the former. Compared to other public servants, such as the police, firemen, nurses, and even teachers, they’re largely invisible, little thought of, and certainly not worthy of fetishization by popular culture, in contradistinction to the aforementioned.

Generally, the only time the general public is aware of anything relating to child welfare is when something horrible happens – a child dying in foster care, or a social worker clearing a family for child abuse or neglect and a child dying afterwards. At the same time there is a nagging, and not entirely undeserved perception of child welfare workers breaking apart and ruining families – after all, they are paid representatives of sociopolitical structures that have historically oppressed people unluckily born into bad situations not of their making [3].

Throwing services at people is analogous to putting bandages on gaping wounds. The child welfare system is a reactionary multifaceted entity that does not, and indeed cannot address and rectify the deep underlying issues relating to institutionalized racism and income inequality. Until these issues are meaningfully addressed, we should expect little to change. The best we as a society can hope for is the ongoing refinement of what works, and the ceasing of what doesn’t.

At its root, the goal of child welfare is protecting children. While the people who work in this field need to be cognizant of the underlying socioeconomic issues affecting families, it does not change the fact that some children are in need of protection from their parents, no matter how oppressed by the system they may be. The stories referenced in Jezebel are important, and deserving of filtering into the general consciousness. But I feel it paints an incomplete picture (as does this blog post).

I think child welfare is something you should learn about in your area, outside of local media reporting terrible tragedies. Your state probably has statistics to look though. And there are many things you can do to help out. Failing that, at the very least, you can become aware.

[1] I don’t want to get too lost in the weeds, but this doesn’t include reports relating to child welfare in which families request services. Over the same time span there were 17,772 such requests. Most of these, around 80%, are Screened In since it is usually deemed appropriate to investigate whether or not the request is warranted.

[2] They can also be ruled out for certain violence-related felonies, arrest warrants or pending criminal charges. Anecdotally (an overused term in this post) half of all potential caregivers are ruled out.

[3] The two preceding paragraphs are lightly edited from an earlier blog post. A lot is changing “we” to “they” and “we’re” to “they’re,” since I’m no longer directly in the field.


  1. says

    You’re ignoring the fact that the parents have every reason to spin and lie when they tell their stories. And the fact that EVERY ABUSER EVER will claim, straight-faced, that they’re not abusive.

  2. says

    It’s a difficult and complicated topic because it’s as diverse of situations as people are unique, and because abuse and neglect are so pervasive that we can’t even come close to tackling it right without a massive shift in our national priorities. But one thing is crystal clear from the zip codes involved: The current system is racist as hell.

    I’ve had a few personal experiences with child welfare services and they were really bad. The people who lost their children were in both instances black, one situation where the parent needed to lose her babies but they were put in a home where they got raped, and one where the parent was failed and victimized by a system that should have been helping her.

    Fuck abusers tho, and also, we need to take a serious look at children’s rights worldwide. They’re still legally property / slaves in too many ways, in most countries.

    • says

      Some parents, in my experience, viewed their kids as their property that they can do whatever they want to. It’s not a pleasant thought. But it’s something I couldn’t help but think sometimes

      I know of some pretty great people who have adopted kids from the child welfare system, as well as other foster parents and facilities that do amazing work. Wisconsin has done pretty well in lowering the amount of maltreatment for kids in care. That’s not to say horrible things don’t happen, of course. I know of some of the worst shit in the world in that area.